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Non-Review Review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Early in the film, a supporting character reveals the ingredients of the eponymous culinary delight, the mysterious “potato peel pie.” Those ingredients are, somewhat predictably, potatoes and potato peels. With some small measure of pride, the character in question boasts that his potato pastry remains conceptually pure. There is no flour, no sugar, no flavouring. There is only potato. Watching The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, this almost feels like a moment of self-awareness.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society could certainly use more flavouring.

Pie in the sky thinking.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is warm, comfort blanket storytelling. Director Mike Newell moves the story along with a gentle and tender nudge, never pushing or forcing his characters into challenging or uncomfortable positions. Cinematographer Zac Nicholson makes the island of the title seem like a postcard through which the characters might wander. The surroundings in which the characters find themselves are genuinely idyllic, looking like paradise even in the wake of horrific enemy occupation.

Similarly, composer Alexandra Harwood’s score offers constant emotional reassurance to the viewer. The music adds an extra layer of security over these idealised visuals, making an unspoken promise that no character over the course of the film will face anything too horrific or unsettling. The characters in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society are confronted with all manner of horrific realities, but the score seems to buoy them, promising the audience that these islanders and their visitors will endure.

Spinning its wheels.

There is some value in this. Gentleness is an underrated virtue, particularly in this day and age. There is a place of stories that are consciously and insistently non-threatening, films that don’t so much hold the audience’s hand as wrap their arms around the viewer in a guarantee that all will be well and that everything will work out in the end. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society unfolds in a world without tension.

Indeed, the basic premise of the film assures the viewer that everything will be fine, unfolding in the aftermath of a horrific ordeal. The script very carefully establishes that its characters have survived the worst that the world could throw at them. Although The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society involves making inquiries into that troubled past, the story serves more as a gentle requiem than as a brutal exhumation.

Not German to the discussion at hand.

At one point, the lead character Juliet Ashton espouses the appeal of a career as a novelist. Jokingly, she articulates the wonders of working in the comfort of familiar surroundings, with the teapot always within reach. There is nothing wrong with that kind of story, and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is certainly well-constructed in those terms. There is never any confusion about what kind of film that The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is going to be.

However, there is something disingenuous in all of this. There is a faint sense beneath this reassuring exterior that The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society quietly aspires to be more than just a comfort blanket, that it has important things that it wants (or needs) to say about an interesting and challenging chapter of British history. At certain points, this potato peel pie aspires to give its audience something to chew over, to leave the viewer with something to digest.

Foyles’ War.

This is certainly a commendable objective, but one that cannot be reconciled with the film’s desire to reassure the audience. The story that The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society wants to tell cannot quite be reconciled with how the film wants to tell it. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society wants to tell a very uncomfortable story in the most comfortable manner imaginable.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is the story of the occupation of the titular island by the Nazis during the Second World War. There is weighty subject matter here, an anvil hidden in the folds of that comfort blanket. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society touches upon issues of occupation, collaboration, guilt, responsibility, violence, and trauma. It is a story about how the effects of such violence linger on a population long after the immediate threat has passed, and how what seem like easily-defined boundaries blur during wartime.

Land of mine.

Well, it’s about these things in theory. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society doesn’t poke at these themes beneath the comfort blanket. It doesn’t even shake them. It gestures at them, almost afraid of what might happen were the film to tackle these ideas head-on. Around the film’s midpoint, Juliet is warned to tread lightly on the island for fear of setting off land mines. Almost immediately, both she and the audience are reassured that there are no such land mines.

Ideas are broached, and then ignored. Compromises are suggested, and then withdrawn. Complexity is implied, and then dispelled. Characters who initially appear to be saints are hinted to be flawed and multifaceted human beings in impossible situations, only for the film to promptly reassure the viewers that those characters are somehow even more saintly than they first appeared. Dark secrets are revealed to be tales of bravery and heroism, concealed as much by modesty as by shame.

Everybody wants a slice of the pie.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society would need to be a much more complex and ambitious movie to offer a satisfying exploration of its big ideas. Instead, the film is paint by numbers. Adapted from a beloved book, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society often feels like a collection of exposition and flashbacks. It suffers from the structural problems that haunt many direct adaptations of non-linear novels, struggling with the fact that actors delivering voice-over exposition is not the same as reading first-person narration in prose.

Indeed, among the secondary issues with The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is one that is increasingly familiar in these sorts of gentle literary adaptations. Like The Bookshop or The Book Thief before it, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society fails to grasp that the joy of reading is difficult to convey on screen by depicting the simple act of reading. There are moments in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society when characters liberally quote or read from books, but which fail to convey the majesty of the medium in cinematic terms.

Goode idea, bad idea.

However, this is very much a secondary concern. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society pursues its central mysteries with idle curiousity rather than genuine urgency, Juliet collecting linear literal-minded snippets of plot more than navigating a complex web of intrigue. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society might jump around in time, but its plot is so straightforward that even the prominent characters seem unsurprised by the progression of events and arcs.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is an underwhelming and unsatisfying piece of work without any real spice or flavour.

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